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Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

Polish PM Donald Tusk: New EU visionary?

The way the (pro-EU) Guardian portrays it, he might well be with his speech as Poland took over the rotating EU presidency* yesterday:

Assuming the rotating presidency of the EU for the first time, Donald Tusk rounded on the leaders of Germany, France, Italy, and Britain over their handling of the sovereign debt crisis in Greece, immigration, EU spending and the budget. He charged them with posing as European champions while pandering to a new form of Euroscepticism for personal political gain, and of using fears about immigration to curb freedom of travel in Europe.

The passionate and optimistic defence of the EU from the Polish leader was completely at odds with the mood in Brussels and other EU capitals, where commitment to the union is being eroded by the rise of populist Brussels-bashing, squabbling leaders, and soaring mistrust between member states. In defiance of the gloomy European zeitgeist, Tusk said: “The European Union is great. It is the best place on Earth to be born and to live your life.”

And you know what? Think about it for half a moment, you’ll see it’s more or less true. Yes – even the “best place on Earth” bit. Greater equality, freedom, cultural and historical variety, opportunity, social support, comfort and safety than pretty much anywhere.

This is very easy to forget amid all the current talk of crisis and default. But it remains the case that the member states of the European Union are pretty much all still more prosperous and have better qualities of life than at all but a very few points in history (and those very few points *all* came within the last decade, during the boom before the bust).

Hell, you couldn’t get a better illustration of this point than to note that yesterday, 1st July, the day Poland took over the presidency, was the 95th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. One of the bloodiest battles of all time, leaving more than a million dead – with bones and artefacts still rising to the surface almost a century later – and a key reminder of the turmoil of Europe past.

1st July is also, nicely, the anniversary of the entirely peaceful, voluntary 1569 foundation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the largest, most diverse European state of the 16th-17th centuries – ruled by an elective monarchy held in check by a senate and elected parliament. Little-known in Western Europe, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth deserves to be far more widely studied – not least because it arose at a time that the western half of the continent was submersed in a series of bloody religious conflicts that would last the best part of a century, while it was not only democratically progressive, but also religiously tolereant and ethnically diverse.

Poland has shown Europe the way in time of crisis before, in other words. But she has also frequently been a little ahead of her time. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s elective head of state and bicameral parliament, not to mention its religious tolerance, would not become the norm in Europe for another three centuries. And then there’s Solidarity – a movement Tusk was a part of (along with current European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek) – which is now regarded by many as the initial rumbling that helped set in motion the collapse of Soviet communism, kicked off several years before similar popular movements came to prominence in the rest of the Warsaw Pact.

Is this broad view of Tusk coming too soon for a European Union currently caught up in introspection and blame-throwing? Is his sense of historical perspective a little too visionary for an EU whose leaders have not only spent most of the last two decades tinkering with details, but who are also currently more concerned with short-term worries? And is the six months of the rotating presidency anywhere near long enough to start pushing through any serious reform?

Time will tell. But it is, at any rate, a welcome and refreshing change to hear what to me sounds like a rational optimism coming from someone with real influence in the EU after months of hand-wringing and *years* of stagnation.

Sod Tony Blair as an elected President of the EU – if he handles the next six months well, perhaps Donald Tusk could be our man?

Update: I’m starting to have strong hopes for the Polish presidency. Now this from Polish Finance Minister Jacek Rostowski:

In more general terms, Rostowski argued, politicians have to “start thinking in terms of common European interest” and show solidarity – a mantra of the Polish EU presidency – amid signs of “growing estrangement” between northern and southern member states.

“The short-sightedness of some opposition parties in some countries regarding common institutions and programmes is breath-taking,” he said. “If we don’t hang together, we all hang separately.”

Update 2:Yet more good stuff from Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski:

it is not enough to be optimistic and positive. We also must be realistic. The EU does face painful decisions in the months and years to come. Poland will not accept that the answer lies in less solidarity, or “less integration”. That is the sure path to disintegration, leaving us all worse off – and with new divisions.

…Too many of Europe’s rules and regulations were designed for very different times.

…Europe will make a strategic mistake if it retreats into unhappy introspection.

…Thirty years ago the Gdansk ship-workers led the way and changed the world, as millions of Poles joined the Solidarity movement to insist on their basic democratic rights and freedoms. The Polish presidency wants to help the EU draw strength from the ambition and patient wisdom of that movement. Poland itself is an EU success story.

* Yes, this one still exists too. Branded as the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, as opposed to the Presidency of the European Council (Herman van Rompuy), Presidency of the European Parliament (Jerzy Buzek), or Presidency of the European Commission (José Manuel Barroso).

19 Comments

  1. I agree. He realizes the EU, its funds and the free movement of people, have an incredible accelerator of Poland’s rapid modernization since the fall of Communism.

    The western leaders are passive, defensive mediocrities. They see Europe as an annoyance rather than something with transformative potential.

    The Poles have lived through transformation since 1989 and this process is still continuing. They realize the EU’s historic mission: through its economic power and incentives to democratize, bring into its orbit and/or take in the whole of the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe. Hence why they push for enlargement, for a common EU foreign policy, for tough sanctions on Russia.

    Incidentally, I am quite optimistic. Serbia has realized the folly of its “nationalist-Russian” path, is arresting its war criminals, and has made EU membership the most important goal of its foreign policy. Ukraine has said it prefers a free trade agreement with Europe than a customs union with Russia. In Russia itself, Putin and Russian officials have said that as soon as they get into the WTO they will work for a Turkish-style customs union with Europe.

    It really makes me quite optimistic and I think this Polish leadership has a coherent project and vision for Europe. It’s quite inspiring!

    • Edit: *Tough sanctions on BELARUS!

    • Serbia has realized the folly of its “nationalist-Russian” path, is arresting its war criminals, and has made EU membership the most important goal of its foreign policy.

      I am not sure you are right. Euro scepticism is rising here. On the other side are “euro optimists” which expect EU is a land of milk and honey and solution to all existing problems.

  2. Mr Tusk seems to forget that half his citizens work and reside in the UK as well as the less desirable East European countries “imports” that bring all the joys of child slavery, forced prostitution, benefit fraud and organised crime. So yes, in that way we have certain fears about immigration, but they are certainly not mirrored by our treacherous governments.

    In the process they´re sending back tens of thousands of pounds home to his and every other East European country which keeps their economies going whilst diminishing ours as well as building their fair share of taxpayer funded mansions for when they think they have ransacked us enough!

    I wish they were “Pandering to Euroscepticism”, in fact, they´re actually ignoring the fact that NONE OF US WERE ASKED if we wanted to be in the EU!

    Once a communist, always a communist

    • “half his citizens work and reside in the UK”?

      Polish Population? c.38,000,000 (2007).

      Polish citizens in the UK? c.500,000 (2010).

      Half? More like 1.3%.

      You’ll also note from that second link that the vast majority of these Poles are *employed* in the UK. So paying tax:

      “In the first quarter of 2011 an estimated 82.1 per cent of Poles aged 16 to 64 were in employment, compared with a rate of 70.7 per cent for the UK as a whole… The unemployment rate among Polish-born people aged 16 plus during the same period was 5.5 per cent, compared with a UK unemployment rate of 7.7 per cent”

      I don’t normally like to do ad hominem attacks – but as you’ve just dismissed a former member of Solidarity on the fatuous, offensive grounds of “once a communist, always a communist”, I don’t feel so bad on this occasion:

      Sue, unless I’m very much mistaken you are @EU_Dictatorship on Twitter, and are an ex-Pat Brit living in Spain.

      As such, not only do these Poles contribute far more to the British economy than you do, but you’re also a rampant hypocrite.

      • Oh, and to add to the gloriousness of a British ex-pat in Spain attacking Poles for moving to the UK, there’s this:

        A million Britons live for all or most of the year in Spain, according to the British embassy, although only 375,000 have registered formally at local town halls. Many would rather the Spanish authorities, especially those who collect taxes, did not know they were there. The one million figure makes them Spain’s biggest immigrant group.

        1 million, eh? That’s 1.6% of the British population – 0.3% higher than the percentage of Poles in the UK, and double the absolute number – and most appear to be avoiding paying Spanish tax, unlike Poles in the UK.

        *applause*

  3. “The European Union is great. It is the best place on Earth to be born and to live your life.”

    Bollocks.

    Europe might be, that’s arguable. But Europe and the EU are not synonymous.

    Further, to claim that what makes Europe a great place to live is the EU is just the most ghastly cocknobbling.

    “Greater equality, freedom, cultural and historical variety, opportunity, social support, comfort and safety than pretty much anywhere.”

    Fuck all of these have anything at all to do with the EU. “Cultural and historical variety”? What, the Coliseum and the German language were gifted to us by the EU now were they?

    • Really, Tim? “Europe and the EU are not synonymous”? How on earth did I never notice that before?

      /sarcasm

      The words were chosen very carefully. As were mine: “Think about it for half a moment, you’ll see it’s more or less true”.

      Your unthinking “Europe might be” retort, though? Tell that to the people of Belarus.

      Of course there are nice places to live within Europe and outside the EU – just as there are outside Europe (Canada, New Zealand, a few others). But nowhere has the breadth of advantages and opportunities that the EU affords – social, economic, cultural, whatever.

      As for “Fuck all of these have anything at all to do with the EU” – who said they did? (Though, as it happens, quite a few of them *do* – if you bother to think about it for half a moment, which I know you won’t.)

      You really should try reading what’s written and considering the arguments based on their merits rather than allowing your own prejudices to blind your judgement and perception, old boy. Then I might be able to start taking you seriously again, rather than just finding you a rather sad parody of your former self.

      (Another ad hom response that, I know – but considering how many times Tim’s done that to me on his own blog, including publicly accusing me of being a paid-up Commission stooge, I don’t feel so bad…)

    • Tim, NM – does every EU citizen have the right to go and live in Norway? (this is a serious question, the differing rules of EFTA and the EU sometimes confuse me). If they do, then everyone in the EU does indeed have the right to go and live in the objectively best nation on earth. If they don’t, then sadly that point, plus the existence of Australia and New Zealand, spanner things up a bit.

      • Norway is Schengen so there is total freedom movement between Norway and the continental EU. UK and Ireland still have their special separate regime but I don’t think it’s difficult for a Brit to settle there.

      • They do – the EEA Agreement pretty much repeats the free movement parts of the EU Treaties, and there’s a council to help Norway & Iceland implement EU laws as Brussels passes them in those areas. The EFTA Court follows ECJ reasoning to enforce/interpret the laws in the same way. So citizens of Norway and Iceland can use those rights in the EU too.

        Because the UK & Ireland are outside Schengen there could be more passport requirements, but otherwise it’s pretty much the same.

  4. Pingback: Poland: A visionary within the EU? · Global Voices

  5. It’s refreshing to see someone so prominent who is able to see the forest for the trees and look past the next election. I hope and think that eastern Europe will have a positive influence on the EU. The EU in western Europe has always been seen as either a threat to or an extension of the national ego, and neither does anyone any good.

  6. Of course the Poles like the EU its good for them and they have hardly ever ruled their own country anyway. It is true ,as well that New Labour solved the persistent problem of unemployment… in Warsaw.
    Seems to me that this has been a less free and certainly far less democratic country thanks to the EU.

  7. The individual EU states would be just as good places to live in even if they weren’t part of the EU(think switzerland and Norway).

  8. Lest we get too enthusiastic about the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth we ought to remember that whilst it had a healthy dose of democracy (well for the szlachta/aristocracy anyway) it encountered an awful lot of problems:
    - when the Jageillon dynasty of Kings died out, the Polish crown could be bought, and plenty tried (and those that didn’t could conquer – like the Swedes and Saxons)
    - curbs placed on the monarchy left the state weak and almost defenceless (remarkable for the nation that produced the likes of King Jan III Sobieski who relieved the Siege of Vienna)
    - it was so democratic that a single delegate at the Sejm (Parliament) could veto the entire agenda (and would) so that by the 18th century Poland was virtually an anarchy state
    - despite a last-minute bout of far-sighted reform under King Stanislas II Poniatowski (which established amongst other things the first written constitution, and restricted the extent to which the monarchy was elected) it was swiftly divided up between Austria, Prussia and Russia: Poland would not emerge as an independent nation until 1918

    Polish history is fascinating, unique and in many respects utterly fascinating. However, it is also a lesson in the tragedy of idealism. The EU should look to it as a warning as much as an example.

  9. Pingback: In Defense of Decadent Europe: Why it really is “the best place on Earth to be born” | Letters from Europe

  10. This is rubbish. I am willing to make a bet that Europe is not the monkey or the bored users.

    I think I am going to get involved in politics.